I’ve been thinking about how often, as parents, we do most of our doing at this level we consider “above” our kids.
We don’t mean it in a rude or superior way, just that we’re all busy doing adult stuff and they’re in their kid world. Sometimes we bring them up into our adult world (let’s have a nice dinner out, let’s sit down and work on this thing together, let’s take time for a shared interest). Sometimes we drop down into their child world (a parent-kid date, playing a game with them, listening to their stories).
But then we retreat (both of us) with a good measure of relief (we want to be where we are comfortable) and continue existing alongside each other but in these separate layers. Sometimes the layers clash but mostly they just roll along ignoring each other.
What if that weren’t normal, though, really?
What if we made that a weird way to parent instead of the norm?
What if we realized that children are not inherently or significantly different than we are, as “adults”?
What if we respected and treated our children the way we treat our peers (other adults)?
There’s something about this arbitrary adult/child categorization and resulting separation that is a little ridiculous.
We don’t like staying in the child world because we feel like we have to pretend while we’re there. I don’t really want to play another round of Uno, thanks. I don’t really care about Minecraft. But I care about my kid, so in order to relate I pretend to care about what’s in my kid’s world. We do that with our peers, too, don’t we? But we don’t become close friends with the peers whose interests don’t intersect with ours at all. We become close to those who share common important points of interest with us. Otherwise it just doesn’t work, because most of us aren’t very good at pretending all the time. Also, it gets boring.
What if we found our commonality with our kids? What if that were the parenting norm? What if we quit defining things as “kid things” and “adult things” and simply focused on “shared things”? What would that change in the world?
I don’t know. These are fuzzy thoughts, that I’m having mainly because today when Mara came into the kitchen, upset and crying, I broke my parenting norm. I didn’t enter Mom role and look at her as a hurting, emotional child. I didn’t try to calm her or comfort her from some position of knowingness and superiority.
I didn’t try to “enter her Child world” in order to relate to and comfort her. I just responded to her the way I would to any dear, wonderful, close, respected friend in distress: I offered her food.
I pulled out the jar of olives (one of her favorite things, which I usually ration in order to avoid spending $30 a week on olives) and dumped them all into a bowl, plunked it down in front of her, wrapped my arm around her shoulders, and said, “Here. Eat these and tell me about it. You’ll feel better.”
She did. She ate the olives, at first through her tears and sniffles, and told me about the meanie who made her cry. Then she ate with sly grins up at me, like we were sharing the greatest secret. We were. Once her normal sarcastic comments started flowing again, I knew she was okay. I went back to cooking, she ate a few more olives and went back outside. I didn’t feel any of that frustration, stress, or guilt I normally feel when one of my children is in crisis and I have to handle it – “be the parent” – and then think of all the ways I didn’t handle it right.
I probably still didn’t handle it right, but I was who I am, a person, responding to another person. One I happen to love with all my heart. One who happened to develop inside my uterus. But still. Person to person.
I’ve probably ruined her relationship with food now, though, introducing her to emotional eating at the tender age of 9.
Also, when we had ice cream for dessert I gave her an extra large portion so she’s pretty much screwed on not viewing food as a reasonable emotional outlet. Sorry, daughter. I love you.
I don’t know though. I think the sincere me is better overall than the me trying and failing to be the parent I think I should be. I never quite pull it off, and we all feel the fakeness and the frustration that comes with it. The stress, the anxiety, and the exhaustion in trying to pretend I know more about the world and have stuff figured out.
I don’t know anything.
Maybe other parents don’t feel this way, and are at home in their parent role in their weird adult world.
But I’m not. And I’m realizing that all the differences I thought existed, the giant gulf I thought was there between the adult and child worlds are really only matters of preference. Details.
Kids like to play, and relax, and so do adults. Kids work hard and like to know why they’re working and what the point is. Kids like to have some sort of genuine reward for their work. Kids get frustrated with micromanagement and inefficiency and pointless wastes of their time. Yeah, I feel you, kids. Me too.
Kids have unique interests, some that come and go within days or minutes, and some that stick with them for years, for a lifetime. Yep. Same here.
Kids sense and feel and respond and are affected by the moods and words and behaviors of the people around them, and some kids are energized by a lot of people and some kids need time alone, and some kids like to process information by talking about it and some kids like to process it internally first and then tell you their conclusions, and some kids need to be tactile in order to get it (whatever it is) and some need to move and fidget because it helps them stay focused… And, yeah, none of that really changes when you pass 20 years old or 5 feet tall.
Kids value their possessions, and have distinct ideas about style and their own sense of taste, and some kids like to have a lot of stuff and some kids are more minimalist, but all kids (at least all the kids I’ve ever known) have a fairly deep of justice, and respect for property, and how stealing is wrong.
All kids over three, that is. Toddlers live by stealing.
Kids have big emotions, just like adults do. The only difference is that they’re not as practiced at masking or stuffing them, mainly because they a) don’t feel the social pressure that we feel and b) don’t have years of forced training in how to stifle, stuff, mask, ignore or otherwise disown their emotions.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that temper tantrums and screaming are great courses of action, but the emotional needs aren’t different. Adults have learned to lash out in different ways, so the only real difference here is education. Frankly, I’m not sure that a good scream-and-sob fest followed by an exhausted nap wouldn’t do us all more good than our lame adult coping mechanisms.
There’s a responsibility factor we have as parents, and that’s the biggest hurdle to jump in letting go of the idea that the adult world is different than or superior to the kid world in any significant way. Because, let’s face it, there are a lot of things that kids are just plain stupid about. Like whether you should ever touch fire. How loud the tv should be. The likelihood of a tornado. When sound effects are appropriate. How many pieces of candy make a handful. Which monsters are actually real (Trump, yes; the five-horned demon goat of Doom Mountain, no).
But as I make that list, it becomes clear that the only real difference between an adult and a kid is education and experience. We know more stuff because we’ve been alive longer, and that’s really it. Sure, we’re more developed physically and mentally, too. But that’s not always an advantage. Right now I’m aging and getting slower in the brain and creakier in the joints and they wake up on fire for the day, every day. Plus the developmental differences are fairly small compared to the educational/experiential differences.
I guess our job is to help them learn the important stuff, and learn how to learn more as they want to, and help them experience as much life (the good of it, preferable, which is a lot) as they can.
And, of course, we need to help them stay safe while all that education and experience is happening. Because until you have education of or experience with rush-hour traffic and chili mac five-way with extra hot sauce and proselytizers and tin whistles, you don’t know to stay away from them.
But if we could remember that we’re not different creatures inhabiting different worlds, that would be good. We could quit playing weird roles. We would quit seeing ourselves as living two separate lives, or intruding on each other. We could start, I don’t know, interacting instead of parenting. Talking with our kids instead of lecturing them, maybe? Responding with genuine warmth and interest instead of pretending, because if we dropped the roles and dropped the idea of separation, we could enjoy who they are without feeling the need to shape them, as if they are lumps of pizza dough. They are not tiny imperfect incomplete creatures in need of our intervention. They are already all there. Intact. Everything is as it should be. From mind to body to soul, they come to us with what they need, lacking only one thing: someone who loves them to watch their back as they figure life out.